What is Love?

Baby, don’t hurt me…

(Apologies, couldn’t resist.)

Not long ago, one of the students taking my “Get Over Your Partner’s Past Fast” course wrote to me with a provocative question. Let’s call him “Ananda:”

I was reading your blog post about 36 of your favourite quotes about jealousy, love, and relationships. The final quote, by the Beatles, is “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

You mentioned that you believe these are some of the wisest words ever spoken about love. What do you see in those words, or what meaning do you derive from them?

Thanks!

Thanks for your question, Ananda. This is probably going to be a lengthy answer, but I think your question warrants it.

On reading your email, I was reminded of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Paul McCartney being interviewed on “The Chris Farley Show.” (RIP, Chris Farley.)

This funny video is, unfortunately, difficult to find online, but if you do manage to find the clip you’ll discover that during his “show” Chris asks Paul to clarify the famous lyric in question. Paul responds simply by saying that, in his experience of love and loving, “the more you give, the more you get.”

“AweSOME!”

I’m not sure I can put it any better than that.

In social psychology, the concept of reciprocity refers to a social rule that states that we should repay any favours paid to us. “Pay it forward,” so to speak. And of course you may recall the so-called “golden rule,” which states that we should “treat others like we would like to be treated.” And when I cite the classic Beatles lyric above, I’m referring to something similar, but in a sense, even bigger, even more consequential; a “rule” of the universe, if you like, with even broader implications.

My interpretation of “the love you take” being equal to “the love you make,” is the idea that what I call “the universe”—and for you that might mean God, or other people, or “life” in general—will reward us with love if, and only if, we offer love to others.

But what is equally crucial is our motivation for offering love

If we approach offering love from a selfish perspective (ie. “I want to offer love so others will love me”) we will be disappointed. If we offer love for the sake of loving itself (ie. “I want to love”) we will be rewarded–if not now, somewhere down the line.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes, which I cite in Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy, by the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who wrote:

The so-called ‘meaning of life’ opened up to me. It turned out to be infinitely simple: give love and seek no reward.

Of course, “love” can refer to many different things; love has multiple expressions. So if you take a look around, you’ll see evidence of this philosophy in action all around you.

One example: in most businesses, the people who are most rewarded financially for their efforts are those who focus on providing the most value to others, rather than focusing on how they can make the most money.

Here’s a quote from the book Money by motivational speaker Anthony Robbins:

The secret to wealth is simple: Find a way to do more for others than anyone else does. Become more valuable. Do more. Give more. Be more. Serve more.

Note that he didn’t write “charge more,” or “ask more,” or “expect more.” Simply, do more. Offer more.

I’ve discovered this philosophy in action as an author and educator for this site.

Now I’m not what you’d call “wealthy” by any stretch, but I have discovered that the more I focus on providing value to others—improving my online course, offering more support and guidance to the students in my course, writing better blog posts—the more value I receive in turn.

And these benefits go beyond financial value: the more value I provide to others, the better book and course reviews I get, the kinder e-mails I receive, the more people talk about and share my work, and the more people find this website, and the more opportunities of all sorts I receive.

And it’s a beautiful system because it’s not only that the more people who help me the more I can help people, but the people who offer me the most value receive the most value in return, whether they support my work by signing up for my course, offer to write a book review, sending me a thoughtful (sometimes critical) email about my work, or if they’re simply kind enough to say “thank-you” when I offer them help.

(This is especially critical if you’re looking for some kind of help from someone you don’t know, especially someone who’s very busy. Before asking them for something, or writing them an email, ask yourself “How can I help this person whose help I’m seeking?” I guarantee you’ll get better responses and results.)

It’s a law of the universe:

People who say “thank-you” are thanked. People who offer value receive value in return. People who love are loved.

But we must keep in mind the crucial caveat I mentioned earlier. For some reason—call it “energy,” call it intuition, call it whatever you want—we generally know, in our gut, when someone is offering something to us motivated solely by self-interest. And it’s a big turn-off.

Now, any psychologist or sociologist will tell you that self-interest plays a fundamental role in social relations, and we are, all of us, partially motivated by self-interest. I’m sure even Gandhi had a part of him motivated by the prospect of appearing on the cover of Time.

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But to be truly successful—in love, in relationships, in business, in life—we need to be motivated by more than self-interest.

Because people can smell it on us when we are motivated entirely by self-interest and they don’t like it.

They don’t like it because they themselves are self-interested, and are understandably wary of someone trying to “get something” out of them without offering much in return.

Perhaps I’m unnaturally savvy at reading people (I doubt it) but I can generally tell, within a few minutes of meeting someone (or checking out their website, reading their book, etc.) what they’re all about, and their motivations. I think most of us can just tell—I can’t explain why—when someone is doing something for purely selfish reasons, or if selfishness is their defining characteristic. And it’s repellent, at least to me.

Let’s take meeting women as an example, because I’m a straight man who loves women, and who finds this stuff very interesting.

Many men, perhaps most, see a beautiful woman, and approach her with the mindset of “She’s really hot, I want her, I’m going to try and say things to make her like me in order to get what I want,” whether what they want is sex, or validation, or attention, or anything else.

But if you approach a woman with the mindset of “She looks interesting, I wonder if we’d be a good fit for each other, let’s go and find out” the interaction is much more relaxed, fun, and mutually-pleasurable, whether the interaction involves a quick chat, a date, or a night spent in bed.

Aside from the fact that the man in this latter scenario is going to be more relaxed during the approach, the woman he’s approaching will be able to tell that he wants her to have a good time as much (or more) as he wants to have a good time. (Whatever that “good time” turns out to be.) So naturally, she’s going to be more receptive to his approach.

My point is that most of us have this kind of hardwired, unconscious intuition when interacting with others.

And we’re all motivated by self-interest, but humans also have a huge capacity for compassion, and genuine concern for the well-being of other humans.

And selfless generosity is attractive and appealing because it says something powerful about the person offering it.

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Think about it: if someone is brave enough to give without expecting anything in return, doesn’t it say a lot about how confident, self-assured, and trustworthy that person is?

Their unselfish offering demonstrates the fact that their confidence, their sense of self, their self-esteem isn’t dependent on external rewards or validation—they’re motivated by something bigger, something deeper, something more. Sounds like someone I’d like to spend my time with, anyway.

In one of my more ambitious (some might say overambitious) moments of writing, in my book Everyday Joy I defined love as “a glimpse of the divine in ourself reflected in another.”

I was referring to the idea that we don’t really fall in love “with someone”—we simply fall in love with our ability to love, which this other person has helped awaken in us. Because loving others can be so rewarding, so life-affirming, so fun, we fall in love with this realization, even more than the person we love. But we will never experience this bliss, this insight, this joy if we offer love only looking for love in return.

So going back to your question, Ananda. By now you might be asking: what’s the bottom line? How can I apply this way of thinking? How can I internalize a giving-first mindset?

This isn’t always easy (and I still have a long way to go) but for a start we can simply realize that if we want love, we must first offer it to others without expectations; so, we can choose to love without worrying about whether or not our love will be reciprocal, or what we’re going to “get out of it.”

We can be brave enough to take a chance, put ourselves out there, and love for the sake of love itself, because aside from the fact that it’s just more fun, it’s also where the real payoff lies.

We might be rewarded for the love, the value, the labour we offer to others in strange ways.

We might work to start a business focused on solving an important problem that is slow to get off the ground, while some time later our generosity results in word-of-mouth spreading, resulting in a massive influx of new customers. We might offer love and affection to someone who rejects us, only to be loved beyond our wildest dreams by a new lover in the future.

For the most part, I think the universe (again, for you that might mean God, society, whatever) gives us the emotional rewards we deserve. Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule,” and one only look at sufferers of chronic depression or other mental illnesses to dismiss this notion. But in my own relatively brief, and admittedly privileged life, I’ve found it to be true.

And living my life inspired and motivated by what I can do for others is infinitely more fun—and rewarding—than focusing on “me first.” And if I keep doing this, and staying motivated by the right reasons, I’m confident that in the end the love I take will be equal to the love I make.

I hope I’ve answered your question, Ananda. Thanks again.

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About The Author

Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, PopMatters, Mic, HuffPost Live, and many other publications. I'm passionate about helping others overcome jealousy in their relationships, and become happier human beings.